Friday, July 28, 2006

Clerks II (2006)

Kevin Smith isn’t the only one who had a lot riding on “Clerks II.” For all of us thirty-somethings who fell in love with the black-and-white genius of “Clerks” back in 1994, the stakes were just as high. I won’t say that we anticipated this with the same level of breathlessness that met “Star Wars: Episode I,” but the concerns were the same. After all these years, would Smith give us something worthy of “Clerks,” or would “Clerks II” just sully our enjoyment of the original? It’s an extremely fair question given Smith’s inconsistent post-Clerks filmography, including his last film, 2004’s truly foul-smelling “Jersey Girl.” Indeed, while I have enjoyed several of Smith’s films, none of them has fully lived up to the promise of “Clerks,” in which Smith seemed poised to join that interesting fraternity of modern film-makers (including Richard Linklater and Whit Stillman) who understand that conversations are not something that fills the spaces between action in our lives, conversations usually are the action in our lives. Finally, twelve years later, “Clerks II” lives up to that promise.
This sequel finds our heroes in pretty much the same life situation they were in in “Clerks.” Now in their 30’s, Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal (Jeff Anderson) are still clerks, now in a fast-food restaurant. Randal is still porn-obsessed and caustic as hell. Dante is still the more sensitive of the pair, and once again inexplicably has two attractive women after him. Appropriately, the stakes are higher this time around for the 12-years-older Dante, who finds himself torn between moving to Florida and a better job with his fiancĂ© or sticking around Jersey to paint the toenails of his hot boss Becky (Rosario Dawson).
Meanwhile, Jay and his hetero-life-mate Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) are still hanging around outside, making deals and busting moves. Kevin Smith standbys Ben Affleck and Jason Lee drop in for quick cameos, and comedienne Wanda Sykes delivers the goods in a hilarious scene about racial slurs. The film is full of bizarre characters and hilarious, foul-mouthed arguments about everything from “Lord of the Rings” to the appropriateness of mixing and matching body parts during sex. Unfortunately, Silent Bob’s “Berserker”-singing, Russian cousin is nowhere to be seen, but at least there is a live, donkey-sex show.
My pleasure in watching “Clerks II” was lessened not at all by Kevin Smith’s considerably higher budget on this film, roughly $5 million, compared to about $28K for “Clerks.” True, “Clerks II” lacks that black-and-white, film-school feel of the first film, and the jokes and characters aren’t quite as fresh this time around, but overall I feel like “Clerks II” is everything I could have asked for in a “Clerks” sequel. I recommend multiple viewings of both films.

5 stars.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

There’s something about Clay-mation that I dig. I liked it back in the day when they were using it to sell California raisins, and I like it now, when most animated entertainment is just computer programs tripping over themselves to see who can come up with the cleverest pop-culture reference. As the Shrek sequels and CGI rip-offs become increasingly frenetic, Clay-mation offers a slower-paced, less busy form of storytelling. That said, Let me make it clear that there is nothing “slow” about “Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.” This is high-flying adventure filled with belly-laughing fun; more fun than any barrel full of CGI monkeys.
Some folks already know of Wallace & Gromit from some short films on BBC television that are much-loved in the U.K. Wallace is a scatterbrained cheese addict who invents all manner of Rube-Goldberg-style devices. These frequently backfire in some way, requiring Wallace’s quick-thinking, long-suffering hound Gromit to save the day. In “Curse of the Were-Rabbit,” Wallace invents a brain-washing machine and attempts to train the local rabbits not to eat people’s vegetables. Naturally, mistakes are made, and he manages to create a monster rabbit, a veggie-eating machine that puts the annual giant vegetable contest at risk. Wallace and Gromit attempt to stop the beast by “humanely” catching it before the oily Victor Quartermaine (voiced by Ralph Fiennes) can shoot it. Truly fun for the whole family!
I hate to keep ripping on the computer-animated movies, but in recent years it seems that every animated feature has to slip in some slick 70’s or 80’s pop culture references to keep the adults entertained. “Wallace & Gromit” doesn’t have to do that, because it is just plain funny. Everyone can enjoy it, even the dog.
4.5 stars.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Caddyshack (1980)

Lately I’ve been trying to re-watch some of the old movies that I have come to take for granted. Movies that I maybe haven’t ever sat down and watched, but have seen various parts of them on cable about a billion times. So that’s how I wound up renting “Caddyshack,” one of the cultural touchstones of my generation.
For the few people in the free world who haven’t seen “Caddyshack,” there is no plot, so don’t look for one. I think that some of us who saw all or part of it years ago have actually invented plots for the film which don’t exist. For example, I had gotten the impression at some point that the movie was about Rodney Dangerfield’s character, land developer Al Czervik, trying to buy the club and destroy it. Well, it’s not about that or about anything else really other than allowing the actors and the audience to have a good time. There is some pretense to a plot about young caddy Danny Noonan (Michael O’Keefe) trying to get a scholarship by ass-kissing stuck-up club president Judge Smails (Ted Knight). There is also the enmity between Judge Smails and the socially unrefined, hilarious Czervik, as well as a subplot featuring Bill Murray as groundskeeper Carl Spackler, and his delightfully violent efforts to rid the golf course of pesky gophers.
But “Caddyshack” is not about these plots, it is all about scenes. There’s the scene with the Baby-Ruth in the pool, which to this day makes it hard for me to eat a Baby-Ruth. There’s the scene with the priest golfing in the thunderstorm. There’s the dancing gopher. There’s the scene with Cindy Morgan naked. Who could forget the Bill Murray “Dalai Lama” story, and that weird scene in Bill Murray’s apartment, which was added on after the fact when the filmmakers realized that their two biggest stars, Murray and Chase, didn’t have a scene together. Good times, people!
As cool as those scenes are, I have to admit that while re-watching “Caddyshack” I was struck by how my memory of the movie was much better than the movie itself. I didn’t realize it before, but most of the acting is terrible! Michael O’Keefe is almost unwatchable, and even Chevy Chase is mostly uninspired as golf pro Ty Webb. That “Caddyshack” manages to rise above its own lameness is a testament to the genius of Bill Murray, with an assist from a wickedly insulting Rodney Dangerfield. Thanks to these two, the film is worth watching. For the majority who have already seen it, however, your best bet may be to just reminisce.

3 stars.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Nacho Libre (2006)

With a baby in the house, I don’t get to see movies in the cinema much these days. So when the opportunity came to take my wife to the movies, we wanted to pick something really good. “Nacho Libre,” which brings together the creators of the hilarious “Napoleon Dynamite” (Jerod and Jerusha Hess) and foulmouthed funnyman Jack Black seemed like a sure thing. Two great tastes that taste great together!

Wrong, dude! How could we have known what a waste of time this movie is? Well, we could have heeded the critics who almost universally hate it. Or maybe we could have thought about the differing comedy styles at work here. “Napoleon Dynamite” used unknown actors to create hilariously un-self-conscious characters. Jack Black’s style, on the other hand, is all about being Jack Black. Unfortunately, “Nacho Libre” sucks all the funny out of Black’s routine, leaving nothing but a lame, fake Mexican accent. Meanwhile, the Hess’s characterizations, which held some nuance in “Napoleon Dynamite,” are simplified into predictable grotesques in “Nacho Libre.”

Black plays Nacho, a monk who cooks at a Catholic orphanage in Mexico. His real passion isn’t Christ, though, it is Lucha Libre, Mexican pro wrestling. For some reason, he hooks up with this really skinny, homeless dude (Hector Jimenez) and the two enter amateur tag-team wrestling matches. Despite their complete lack of “skills,” the team is a crowd-pleaser, and they learn to their delight that in wrestling, even the losers get paid. Nacho starts out using his winnings to buy better food for the orphans, but he winds up scoring some polo shirts and polyester pants in his efforts to seduce a tasty nun (Penelope Cruz look-alike Ana de la Reguera).

Nacho and company don’t bother speaking Spanish; they just speak English with stereotypical Mexican accents, which is brilliant! I’d like to put in a request that all foreign-language films come this way from now on. Imagine how much better a classic like “The Bicycle Thief” would have been without those pesky subtitles. “Mama Mia. Somebody took-a my bike!”

Humor, like food, is purely a matter of taste. Somebody must be enjoying “Nacho Libre” as I hear it has done well at the box office. To my taste, this movie is a plate of soggy chips, with bland salsa. Some of the sight gags, like Nacho and his skinny partner wrestling a couple of midgets, are mildly amusing, but most of the jokes are just plain dumb. I know some people made the same accusations about “Napoleon Dynamite,” but that film had a certain freak-show genius to it. “Nacho Libre” tries for the same spirit, but fails, leaving Jack Black with nothing funnier to do than flaunt his endomorphic physique.

There’s a scene in “Napoleon Dynamite” that exemplifies the way that film found the absurd in daily life. Napoleon and Pedro set up a ramp to jump Pedro’s bike off of. With his unfailing geek karma, Napoleon collapses the ramp when he hits it, racking himself in the process. That scene resonates because we have all jumped our bikes off of ramps like that, and we have all seen a buddy rack his balls on the cross-tube of his bike. And, dude, it was hilarious! Now imagine that instead of that simply photographed scene, they had had Napoleon set off on some important mission on the bike, and he ran off of a cliff, crashing spectacularly. That’s what “Nacho Libre” is like. Thanks to a much bigger budget, the scenes are bigger and better photographed, but they lack that “Dynamite” spirit. The question in my mind is whether the Hess’s are a one-hit wonder, or if they will someday recapture that spirit that made “Dynamite” so enjoyable, and put out a movie worth watching.

As for “Nacho Libre,” one thing that I will credit it for is timeliness. Given all the immigration-related turmoil surrounding Mexicans these days, what we really needed was a movie that shamelessly mines the stereotype of Mexicans as greasy, low-rider driving taco-eaters. “Nacho Libre” is that movie. Thanks to a couple of white Mormons from Idaho (the Hesses) and Mike White (the whitest white man living), we can laugh at Mexicans instead of with them.

1 star out of 5.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Over the Edge (1979)

One thing about getting movies from Netflix is that they will make recommendations for you based on your movie selections. Some of these are dumb, like “Oh, you liked ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ so you might enjoy ‘101 Dalmations’.” Others make more sense. Based on the fact that we LOVED “Repo Man,” Netflix suggested this movie about youth-gone-wild called “Over the Edge.” It’s Matt Dillon’s first movie, so we figured “What the hell.” I can’t say that I see any connection to “Repo Man,” but it turned out to be pretty good, in a twisted way.
“Over the Edge” follows the exploits of several early-teenage kids in a suburban planned community, which I think is somewhere in Colorado. Some of the kids live in the upscale part, while others live in tenement-like apartments, but one thing they all have in common is that there is nothing for them to do out in the middle of nowhere but get in trouble. And get in trouble they do. They get stoned, screw, and vandalize everything in sight, and their parents only seem to get involved with them when the police call. Finally, the parents have a meeting to discuss the “youth problem”, and their kids bring reality home to them in a truly violent climax.
This is one of those rare movies in which teenagers are played by actual teenagers, instead of 20-year-old models. Using real 13-year-olds really benefits the film, lending stark reality to the disturbing nature of these kids’ lives. The story goes that the filmmakers first held regular auditions for the movie, but they didn’t think the clean-cut, drama club kids they were getting had the right look. They then just went to some New York junior high schools and looked around, which is where they found young Matt Dillon, getting suspended in the principal’s office. The rest, as they say, is history.
These “troubled youth” type movies tend to either border on exploitation or look like after-school specials, but “Over the Edge” manages to walk the fine line between the two. The film has something of a “Reefer Madness”-esque, public service announcement feel, but I have to say I was totally entertained. “Over the Edge” has aged very well, and the story could just as easily be set in 2006 as in 1979. The film’s overt message is that suburban communities often lack amenities for kids, and bored kids are trouble. As one character puts it, “Seems to me like you all were in such a hopped-up hurry to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you were trying to get away from.”
“Over the Edge” got me thinking about how movies have expressed our cultural anxieties about the “younger generation.” I think that adults have always had a tendency to think that their children are out of control, but it seems that the sixties and seventies were a more openly rebellious time for young people. Some writers have suggested that movies from that period like “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), “The Exorcist” (1973), and “The Omen” (1976) reflect the fears of adults at that time that their children were literally monsters who had turned against them. If so, then maybe more overt films that came out later, like “Over the Edge” and “The Outsiders” (1983) represent some progress in terms of adults trying to understand what their kids are dealing with. Of course, “Rebel Without a Cause” came out in 1955, so maybe I’m just making all this up. Either way, even after 25 years, “Over the Edge” retains the ability to shock, and is worth watching.

3 stars out of 5